About this time last year, in an interview with Brad Sham, Jason Garrett shared his vision about the Cowboys' optimal free agency-draft plan: use free agency to fill all the team's obvious holes - Garrett termed them "must haves" - so that the front office isn't handcuffed in the draft. The plan is to avoid being forced to draft a player at a specific position of need, as they did throughout the mid- to late nineties when they reached for first-round disappointments such as Shante Carver (to replace Charles Haley) and David LaFleur (Jay Novacek). According to Garrett:
In a perfect world, what you want to do is to go into the draft without needs. I think you tend to draft worse when you say, "I think we need to draft this position or that position."...In an ideal situation you want to address your needs prior to the draft. Hard to do that, but you're trying to do that so you can draft as purely as possible.
And this was in fact how the Cowboys proceeded. They had a long list of "must haves" and checked almost every one of them off in rapid succession. Big, physical corner? Check. Fullback? Check. Backup inside linebacker? Check. Backup quarterback? Check. Two starting guards? Check. The two positions that Dallas was unable to address in free agency were a run-blocking backup tight end (to replace Martellus Bennett) and third receiver (their dream of re-signing Laurent Robinson went poof, so they grudgingly re-upped Kevin Ogletree).
In short, they conducted business exactly as Garrett had previously intimated they would, filling holes not with top names (other than big dollar signee Carr) but with serviceable vets who signed the kind of contracts that would allow them to be released if and when a younger and/ or more talented player emerged. This is the key to managing free agency and the draft in concert: a team must be able to cut progress stoppers loose without incurring damning financial penalties. In fact, we saw this key tenet in action last August: when Barry Church began blowing up at the beginning of training camp, free agent safety Brodney Pool, signed to a reasonable one-year deal, was summarily dismissed.
I think it's safe to assume that Dallas will act in the coming months much as they did last offseason, albeit with fewer signings. This is simply because they have fewer holes to fill, after doing yeoman's work in that regard in the Spring of 2012. To get a clearer sense of how they might behave, we first need to consider which positions need to be filled and/ or replaced. As has been published on these very pages, the Cowboys have a long list of unrestricted free agents, as our mighty leader, Dave, articulated last night. To review:
Although this is a long list, it doesn't promise to thin the roster as much as it might lead one to believe, as the vast majority of the team's UFAs are street free agents they signed to one-year deals as injury relief during the Bataan Death March that was the defense's 2012 campaign. Of the names on this list, the only one whose return should merit serious consideration is Spencer, although Jenkins, Peprah, and Sims might be brought back later in the free agency period if other teams fail to show any interest early.
With all these guys leaving, what are the Cowboys' most glaring needs? In an effort to address that very question, I've broken the team up by unit, going three deep in many cases. None of this information should be particularly new or revelatory. But it's important to take a look at the overall picture when assessing how to address the whole team. For clarity's sake, any roster spots that were manned last year by guys who are currently free agents (and thus no longer on the roster), I've left open, marking the spot with a "????." In addition, I've marked restricted free agents with an asterisk. Without further ado, here's the offensive depth chart:
|QB||Tony Romo||Kyle Orton|
|RB||DeMarco Murray||????||Phillip Tanner|
|SE||Dez Bryant||????||Cole Beasley|
|LT||Tyron Smith||Jermey Parnell||Darrion Weems|
|LG||Nate Livings||Ronald Leary|
|OC||*Phil Costa||Ryan Cook||Kevin Kowalski|
|RG||Mackenzy Bernadeau||David Arkin|
|RT||Doug Free||Jermey Parnell||Darrion Weems|
|TE||Jason Witten||????||James Hanna|
|FL||Miles Austin||Dwayne Harris||Danny Coale|
Thanks to last offseason's offensive haul, there are no starting positions that need to be addressed in free agency, with the exception of tight end, which, given how much Jason Garrett has employed two-tight formations, asks the backup TE (much like a third corner or WR3) to function as a starter. Last year, you may recall, they made a bid for two different free agent TEs, the Bears' Kellen Davis and the Panthers' John Carlson. Both signed elsewhere, and Dallas went into the draft, and then into the season, without an adequate replacement for Bennett, who had served as a de facto third tackle, giving the running game a tremendous boost in his four years in Dallas.
When looking over the offensive roster, especially as it pertains to our desire for the team to upgrade their feeble offensive line, it's important to remember Garrett's proclamation that free agency should be used only to fill holes. Is the offensive line currently at the level where anybody would like it to be? No, of course not. But, unless the Cowboys decide to release veterans such as Doug Free or Lawrence Vickers, there aren't any "must haves" among the starting positions. Still, Dallas may look to sign cheap, reliable veterans at backup running back and third receiver, to avoid being hamstrung at those positions during the April selection meeting.
While the offensive depth chart is pretty well set, the defensive chart is in flux. Largely due to their move to a 4-3, the front seven - and especially the front four - remains largely conjectural. Here's my uninformed stab at Dallas' defensive depth, with the few sure things in bold:
|LDE||Tyrone Crawford||????||*Brian Schaefering
|LDT||Jason Hatcher||Sean Lissemore||Marcus Spears|
|RDT||Jay Ratliff||Brian Price||Ben Bass|
|SLB||????||Alex Albright||Kyle Wilber|
|MLB||Sean Lee||Dan Connor||Orie Lemon|
|LCB||Brandon Carr||Sterling Moore||Vince Agnew|
|SS||Barry Church||????||*Danny McCray|
|FS||Gerald Sensabaugh||Matt Johnson|
|RCB||Mo Claiborne||Orlando Scandrick|
Not a lot of certainty here, is there? What is most readily apparent from this exercise is that, with the conversion from a 3-4 and Anthony Spencer's uncertain status, the most obvious defensive "must have" is at defensive end rather than tackle, even if more ink has been spilled regarding the DT position since the switch went public. At present, I've got six players slotted as potential DTs for the Cowboys and only two ends - although both Jason Hatcher and Ben Bass could conceivably play strong side end.
Given this - and given the low likelihood that there will be a defensive end as strong as Spence available in free agency, a strong argument can be made for keeping number 93 in the fold, even if it means franchising him for a second consecutive year. On the other side, I don't see anyone on the roster who seems a reasonable backup for DeMarcus Ware as the wide side DE; I also doubt that they'll be able to afford anything other than a hollow facsimile in free agency, so we might see a DE version of Brodney Pool in that spot - a guy who they can afford to cut should a top defensive end fall into the Cowboys' laps at the 18th pick or a young player emerge in OTAs or training camp.
In the secondary, I'd be surprised if one of the team's priorities isn't to ensure Danny McCray play exclusively to special teams, where he's a potential Pro Bowler. To do this, they'll need to bring in a veteran safety capable of relegating McCray to third team. And finally, I'm at a loss to say who the starting ‘Sam" linebacker is. The best candidates from the roster are Alex Albright and Kyle Wilber. As with Bruce Carter last year, until I'm sure one of them can handle the upgrade, I'm going to consider the starting spot an open question.
What is the larger takeaway from this exercise? The first is that the Cowboys are in much better shape than they were a year ago, when there were as many as twelve key roster spots that needed to be filled. We may not be thrilled with the players who they brought in to fill them, but the team has considerably fewer "must haves" than they did last February. Right now, I count five "must haves," all at backup positions: RB, TE, "Will" linebacker, safety and defensive end. Other possibilities include a starting-caliber SLB, a third receiver, and a second DE.
If, as the Cowboys' braintrust claims, the organization wants to pursue a "BPA" drafting strategy, then addressing positions in free agency like offensive guard and defensive tackle that are currently stocked with serviceable (if unspectacular) players seems a luxury. Looking at their current cap situation suggest that this would be a luxury they cannot afford.
In future posts, we'll pursue this idea further, looking at possible fillers for the team's current "must haves." Next time, we'll take a gander at some possibilities on the offensive side of the ball.
Until then: Go Cowboys!